Technology and Civilization

For a couple of centuries now the rhetoric of technical innovation has been pretty consistent. Apparently technology has revolutionized all of life and transformed evolution itself. The first question is whether any single local improvement in the way we do things really matters to us in any fundamental way, and the second question is whether the accumulation of many improvements across a wide range of activities add up to some broad qualitative change. I’m not convinced that the answer is yes for either. I’m not anti-technology or nostalgic for the past, I just think we should recognize a closer affinity with our stone axe making predecessors. A recent exhibition at the British Museum called Ice Age Art: Arrival of the Modern Mind, seems to have provoked that same thought in a number of viewers. A review in the Times Literary Supplement by British artist Tom Phillips struck me very strongly, not so much for what he said about the artifacts as for his capacity to become so immersed in them that he could say:

“Twenty thousand years have passed. In this sort of time scale, it is only the blink of an eye before, in a thawed out Bloomsbury, a throng of people with light clothing and spectacles, some carrying electronic devices, are gazing at the work of their highly skilled and inventive ancestors.”

Is the contrast a greater shock or the similarity? Is there a difference between the two? We are those ice-age people. This is also recognized by TJ Clark’s review in the LRB. He is disoriented by what he sees, but admits that’s what happens when we see ourselves. 


Ice age carving of a lion headed man

Time means perspective. Time is perspective. And so ice age art might give us a bit of distance on the attitude that whatever happened yesterday in Silicon Valley is an epoch in evolution. It’s true that technological innovation has increased exponentially, but that can’t go on forever, and there are even signs that the curve is leveling off. As stated before on this blog, history will make what now look like big changes seem less important. The title of this post is a nod to Lewis Mumford. Writers of the thirties had a more perspectivized sense of the doings of history.

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